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Broadcasting refers to a technical model of content distribution, a business model, and the industry that implements the two. In NBC: America's Network, Michele Hilmes illustrates how the naming of NBC, the National Broadcasting Company, contains the core characteristics that broadcasting would take on in America. "First, national: when RCA announced the formation of its new radio "chain" in 1926, it introduced the first medium that could, through its local stations, connect the scattered and disparate communities of a vast nation simultaneously and address the nation as a whole...Second, broadcasting: this word was coined to denote a new form of communication that emerged in the early 1920s, one that emanated invisibly from a central source and passed with ease though not only physical but social and cultural barriers to reach listeners as private individuals in their homes...Third, company: In the United States, unlike most of the rest of the world, broadcasting would develop as a primarily private owned enterprise, a business responding to market conditions rather than an organ of the state or a public service institution" (Hilmes 7, Italics original). "The word broadcast, in the electronic sense of the term, stems from early United States naval reference to the "broadcast" of orders to the fleet (Hillard 3).

Hilmes' analysis concentrates on the American broadcast system: this dossier focuses on the central distribution characteristics of the model: transmission over a distance from a central source to multiple receivers, simultaneous consumption by a mass audience, and identical content. This "obvious" modus operandi emerged during a worldwide paradigm shift toward nation stabilization as a result of the horror of World War I and entering World War II on all sides of the ideological spectrum. Mussolini was quoted as saying that without radio he would not have been able to achieve the solidification of and power over the Italian people that he did, and the Fireside Chat over radio is frequently thought of as having vastly strengthened President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s popularity and influence with the American people (Hillard 1).

Substantial technical moves away from these key characteristics have effectively rendered the broadcasting mentality dead.



The Broadcasting Model

Human speech can be considered proto-broadcasting. From the funeral oration of Pericles to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, any moment of human performance with multiple listeners involves a single origin transmitting media content simultaneously to external recipients. But in this live format, the recipients have agency equal to the speaker to affect the content of the media, i.e. audience members can shout out at a live speech and companions contribute to dialogue.

Electronic broadcasting removes the human sensorium from the direct act of transmission and reception, integrating technical apparatus into the system, and removing the opportunity for recipients to impact content. The wireless model took on multiple forms in the United States, before settling in to the current one in which stations broadcast radio or television signals, which can be received by mechanisms dedicated to that purpose. The signal may originate from that station or may be a part of a chain broadcast originating from a further distance with the local station acting as intermediary. “The network concept [is] of a single origination point for programs distributed by wire and radio links to hundreds of stations for national audience consumption” (Wallace 12). The receiver has a dedicated range of frequencies available, and can only be tuned to access one at anytime. The broadcast model does not allow for serial reception of multiple transmissions. The formal qualities of the transmission model were largely duplicated in the industrial infrastructure.

But the shape of this infrastructure was not inevitable. Early experimentation in broadcasting involved both amateurs and professionals, sending and receiving, and a community in which feedback was an integral part of the experience. However, the frequency spectrum for broadcast transmissions is limited, and many early transmissions interfered with the clear reception of each other. "The lack of regulations...resulted in chaos over the airwaves, with the new medium virtually choking itself to death. By the mid-1920s it was clear that federal intervention was necessary if radio was to survive" (Hillard 5). In order for both the broadcast mindset and the broadcast industry to succeed, transmissions needed to reach receivers clearly. A succession of federal regulations--the 1910 Wireless Ship Act, Radio Act of 1912, Radio Act of 1927, Communications Act of 1934--shaped the industry, favoring the more powerful conglomerates such as RCA over the individual, amateur wireless operators. With federal licenses dedicating specific frequencies to specific broadcast stations, the technical format could now function.

This one-to-many distribution model was attractive to marketers for its efficiency. Advertising agencies and the companies they represented became a major source of income for the burgeoning industry. "As one FRC commissioner, Harold A. LaFount stated, "Commercialism is the heart of broadcasting in the United States. What has education contributed to radio? not one thing. What has commercialism contributed? Everything --the life blood of the industry" (Hillard 9). This distribution model also changed political messaging. Using radio, “national and state candidates reach more voters directly and almost personally in a few minutes than they could shake hands in a lifetime.” (Wallace 41).


The defining characteristics of broadcasting--simultaneous remote reception of identical content--existed individually or in combination in a variety of mediums long before the first commercial broadcasting experiments (Kompare 19). The innovation of broadcasting was to unite them in a single medium.


With increased regulation and standardization, the formal prohibitions regarding each side of the broadcasting model could do fell into place. "From 1922 to 1927 sets in use increased sixteenfold--and radio households some 25-fold, from 260,000 to 6.5 million" (Balk 42) By 1950 about 95% of households had radios. Participation in content creation on the part of the audience was eliminated as radio become conceptualized no longer as a boy's sport, but as "a genteel domestic amusement to be consumed passively by the entire family" (Spigel 29).

Formal Prohibitions/Affordances

LA Times 1930
Through out the 1930s, the Los Angeles Times used the iconography of the radio apparatus to mark its listings of programming content, equating the physical radio with the ephemeral broadcast.

The formal probibitions of institutionalized broadcasting were distinct from, but not independent of the legal prohibitions, because "from the beginning radio was recognized as a public resource. There was and is a limited amount of airwave space, and the federal government from the early 1920s on decided to protect this space for citizens" (Hillard 30). The asymmetry in the power structure between the speaking-one and the listening-many greatly influenced how each could interact with the content. Stations dictated the length of programming, gradually standardized to quarter-, half-and full hour, and the availability of programming from morning to evening, and were limited by the reach of their towers and by physical hazards(Wallace 12). Early receivers were constructed by their listeners, thus had the flexibility to be altered at will. But receivers became black boxes. "By 1926, there were substantial alterations in receiver design. Technical controls had been simplified down to two knobs (tuning and volume) so that practical know-how was no longer needed" (Spiegel 29). Audiences had no agency for content expression or to influence any receiver but their own. They could not mechanically influence the operations of the station. The audience did have agency to shape the flow of programs to suit personal taste. This customization was not expression so much as a choice in participation. Still, the seeds of the shift away from the broadcasting model are rooted in this small affordance.

Initially, broadcasting stations sold time rather than programming, making the airwaves available for anyone who could afford it. But this haphazard structure afforded the stations little control over flow to maximize listeners, resulting in a paradigm shift from ad agency sponsored programming to deficit financing by the networks and independent producers. Although Friedrich Kittler suggests that “broadcasting of weightless material came about for the purpose of the mass transmission of records" this recorded material came to be looked at unfavorably (Kittler 94). "The largest commercial threat to the industry emerged with the widespread production of transcribed, or electronically recorded, programs...Between late 1929 and 1932, several NBC affiliates began rejecting chain offerings in favor of these recorded programs...To counter transcriptions, executives of both chains[NBC and CBS] defined and aggressively promoted live, wireless distributed programming as the only authentic system for national broadcasting" (Socolow 34}. The shift from sponsorship to deficit programming, was also a shift away from liveness. “Storing, erasing, sampling, fast-forwarding, rewinding, editing—inserting tapes into the signal path leading from the microphone to the master disc made manipulation itself possible. Ever since combat reports of Nazi radio, even live broadcasts have not been live.” (Kittler 108). Repetition and syndication became the space for economic success, but these new technical abilities called into question the simultaneity of the broadcast model.

Legal Prohibitions/Affordances

Two regulatory bodies were consecutively established to monitor this public resource. "The FRC [Federal radio Commission] was given the authority to issue station licenses, allocate frequency bands to various radio services (including broadcasting), assign and require individual stations to operate on specific frequencies, and limit power...The FCC [Federal Communications Commission] major areas of control over radio are in issuing licenses and renewals. The FCC allocates the use of spectrum space, determining what frequencies are to go to nonbroadcast as well as broadcast services" (Hillard 8-9). Because the frequency spectrum is limited and the early chaos over the airwaves was undesirable, these legal restrictions impacted formal operation. Additionally, the FCC would occasionally interfere with technical innovation in order to protect the public interest and monetary investment, such as delaying the release of color television until guaranteed that color programming technology would be equally receivable on both color and black-and-white sets. The FCC is largely a retroactive regulatory body rather than a proactive one. Licenses can be revoked and fines issued after inappropriate station action, not before.

Heterogeneous Audiences

In Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary tracks a shift in the observer from representation by the camera obscura—“the observer who is nominally a free sovereign individual and a privatized subject confined in a quasi-domestic space, cut off from a public exterior world”—to representation by the stereoscope—“the decentered observer” who when coupled with an apparatus sees visual representation not “subordinated to an exterior image of the true or the right” (Crary 39, 128, 138). This concept of the visual observer was applied to the listener as well in the late 1900s. Lisa Gitelman explains, "Thus was the phonograph oddly considered a “witness” even though it is not an optical device" (Gitelman 87). Broadcasting, both audio and televisual, altered the observer yet again.

Thus Argus lies a victim, cold and pale,
And thus all hundred of his eyes, with all their light,
Are closed at once in one perpetual night.
These Juno takes, that they no more may fail,
And spreads them in her peacock's gaudy tail.
-- Ovid, Metamorphosis

NBC adopted the peacock as its logo in 1956.

This new observer remediated the quasi-domestic reception space of the earlier version as well as the subjective representation of the latter. But the new mass audience was not mono-optic or bi-optic, it was now an Argus Panoptes. This collective experience began with the listeners watching the phonograph, as portrayed in the advertisements of the 1890s to the 1920s. "Listeners stare vacantly at unseen and newly reracialized performers, as if by some collective premonition, keeping their gaze steady for radio then television. The gaze itself is oddly communal, fraught with unlikely assumptions about the democratic power of mass media even as it dampens participation” (Gitelman 137). The communal cultural experience of the 20th century was no lingered rooted in proximity as was that of the 19th. A 1923 commentary on radio broadcasts marks this change. “Station WGY has reversed Shakespeare's portrayal that "all the world's a stage." Broadcasting of drama through the ether is making all the world the audience and the radio studio the stage." The individual observer becomes part of a geographically dispersed reception crowd.“The mass-produced sound storage medium only needed mass-produced communication and recording media to gain global ascendancy“ (Kittler 94).

Pops and Hisses

But the heterogeneous nature of taste created cracks in the broadcasting model. The broadcast model depends on a single central figure, the station, sending out content to multiple receivers, the audience. A Pennsylvania man expressed the new paradigm of the broadcast-united United States, following a 1924 broadcast which linked 18 stations and an estimated 20,000,000 people. "I felt that these great United States of ours were never before so small as they were last evening."

However, this unification model was also problemitized geographically dispersed taste. A freeze on television station licensing from 1948-1952 led to the strengthening of programming geared toward audience of the North East, as the majority of stations and receivers were located in this area. With the lifting of the freeze, stations proliferated across the country. This industrial growth coincided with growth in rating measurement and sophistication. "One result of these tumultuous years of transition in the early 1950s was that the vaudeo star and variety format began to decline in popularity" (Murray 93). The development of metrics to quantitatively measure the audience created a new space of agency for the audience. Opting in-or-out of a station, became an opening for expressing feedback, an expression that only existed previously through anecdotal letter writing. This small change in the flow of information, upstream from receivers to stations, is the beginning of the breakdown of the model. The audience could no longer be viewed as a blank slate to be imprinted upon. Yet, this measured audience did not shape future expression; it only expressed approval or disapproval of past station choices.


Stuart Hall's model of the encoding/decoding process.

In his seminal work "Encoding, Decoding," Stuart Hall questions the linear "sender/message/receiver" model of mass communication research. This model presupposes a complete transfer of information from the sender to the receiver., a "cake-mix" model in which the recipient contributes only attention. He comes to the conclusion that "Production and reception of the television message are not, therefore, identical, but they are related: they are differentiated moments within the totality formed by the social relations of the communicative process as a whole" (Hall 93). Different degrees of symmetry between the encoder-producer and the decoder-receiver result in three different possible decoding positions: dominant or preferred, negotiated, and oppositional. This process upsets the broadcasting model, because it highlights the previously disregarded spaces--the moments of human interface with the technical apparatus. Although stations may perfectly transmit the electronic signals to the radio and television receivers, the receivers do not perfectly transmit messages to their audiences. Thus the human-decoded interpretation is itself a crack in the broadcast model.

Narrowcasting, Interactivity, and the Transitional Paradigm

Lisa Gitelman suggests that, “Like language itself, there is some level at which media help “wire” people for the thinking they do” (Gitelman 150) If this shaping is true, then people wired to be broadcast recipients are being replaced with two other overlapping audiences--the narrowcast audience and the interactive audience. Both choices upset the tradition model of broadcasting and both are steadily gaining strength. In his 2005 book, Rerun Nation, Derek Kompare concludes, "it is clear that the centralized, mass-disseminated, "one-way" cultural institution that has held sway since the middle of the twentieth century is largely ceding to a regime premised instead upon individual consumer choice, and marked by highly diversified content, atomized reception, and customizable interfaces" (Kompare 198).

The narrowcasting, named as such to be deliberately oppositional to broadcasting, is the the practice of targeting specific demographics, rather than the mass. The concept of local programming engages with this idea, defining demographic by geography, and sprang up in many incarnations of broadcast regulation. But narrowcasting by taste grew with the rise of cable programming in the 1980s and has led us to a paradigm, "whereby media become more centralized on the one hand and audiences become more fragmented and niche marketing becomes narrower on the other" (Banet-Weiser, Chris, and Freitas 257). Standard & Poor's 2010 Broadcasting, Satellite, and Industry Survey reports "continuing audience fragmentation" and the growth of targeted cable stations, such as Lifetime (for women) supports that finding. Currently, marketers are exploring narrowcasting beyond representative demographics in order to target actual customers rather than supposed ones.

Since 2000 the top rated telecasts have all been singular sporting events such as the Superbowl rather than serial attractions, and even these events do not break 50% of households. It is difficult to claim a unity of content when not even half of American households watch any particular event. Changing economies of scale call into question the "mass" of mass audience and the "broad" of broadcasting. Not only is the broadcast model disrupted, but Stuart Hall's Encoding/Decoding model may be as well. When consumers experience media targeted and designed for their demographic niche, does the oppositional mode of decoding fade out?

The simultaneity of reception has also been overturned by technological developments. The crack that first began with recorded programming, syndication, and reruns, had been driven ever wider by time-shifting technologies such as VCRs, DVRs, mobile and computer downloads, and mobile and computer streaming. Rather than being defined by industrial programming schedules, audiences have begun to participate in creating their own programming schedules and programming flow.

A Non-Broadcast media product.

Finally the linear transmission of culture from the centralized source to remote receivers is being questioned by interactive and participatory audiences and user generated content. "If, as some have argued, the emergence of modern mass media spelled the doom for the vital folk traditions that thrived in nineteenth-century America, the current moment of media change is reaffirming the right of everyday people to actively contribute to their culture" (Jenkins 136). Although the quality of user generated content greatly varies, and much does not challenge professional productions, quality is not an integral component of broadcasting. Joss Whedon experimented with a non-broadcasting distribution model for his Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog, and found great success with online viewing and DVD distribution. Many broadcasters are now encouraging audience participation in inter-mediac and inter-textual properties, such as games based on shows, and in some cases allowing audience feedback to drive content choices, such as the choosing of a new character on Heroes by audience vote. This type of circular communication between producers and receivers cannot be accounted for in the broadcasting model.


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  • Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990. Print.
  • Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.
  • Hall, Stuart. "Encoding, Decoding." Ed. Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis. Culture, Media, and Language. Taylor and Francis e-Library, 2005. Web. April 25, 2010
  • Hilliard, Robert L. "History and Regulation." Ed. Robert L. Hillard. Radio Broadcasting: An Introduction to the Sound Medium. New York: Longman Inc., 1985. Print
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  • Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Print.
  • Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.
  • Kolb, Erik B.. “Broadcasting, Cable, and Satellite.” Standard & Poor’s Industry Surveys. (February 18, 2010). Web. April 24, 2010.
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  • Murray, Susan. Hitch Your Antenna to the Stars: Early Television and Broadcast Stardom. New York: Routledge, 2005. PDF.
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  • Spiegel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992. Print.
  • Wallace, Wesley H. "Growth, Organization, and Impact" Ed. Robert L. Hilliard. Understanding Television: An Introduction to Broadcasting. New York: Hastings House, Publishers, 1964. Print.
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